Page last updated at 16:16 GMT, Wednesday, 27 July 2005 17:16 UK

Child abuse gang horrifies France

By Sarah Shenker
BBC News

Defendants in the child abuse trial in court in Angers
The size of the trial meant it took several hours to read the verdict
France has been shocked by the scale of abuse revealed at the Angers paedophile trial, where 65 adults were accused of sexually abusing 45 children.

It was the biggest criminal trial in recent French history.

The abused were aged from six months to 14 years, and some of them were prostituted and raped by their own parents and grandparents, in a poor district of the town in western France.

Sometimes they were offered to strangers in return for small amounts of money, food, alcohol or cigarettes.

The accused were mostly from deprived backgrounds and many of them were unemployed and had learning difficulties. Some were illiterate and appeared not to fully understand the charges they faced, defence lawyers said.

A number said they had been sexually abused themselves as children.

"These were people in difficulty, excluded from normal society, who found each other. And for them, everything was sexualised," said Brigitte Chirat, who covered the case for the local newspaper Le Courrier de l'Ouest.

Paedophile ring

At the trial - lasting more than four months and involving about 60 lawyers and 150 witnesses - a prosecutor described how some of the men would call each other and suggest "going for a coffee" as code for visiting one of the homes where the rapes and abuse would take place.

Lasted more than four months
66 people - 39 men, 27 women - tried for allegedly abusing 45 children; one woman not in court for verdict
25,000 pages of evidence
More than 140 witnesses
60 lawyers - 51 for the defence, 9 for the prosecution
Trial cost: 1m euros (700,000)

The videotaped testimony of the children provided most of the horrific details of abuse, which took place between 1999 and 2002.

At the centre of the paedophile ring were Franck, 36, and his former wife Patricia, 32, both sentenced to more than 15 years in prison. Their full names cannot be given so as to preserve the anonymity of the victims.

The charges stated that for years, Franck and his father Philippe, now 59, and two dozen others raped Franck's daughter Marine, aged seven at the time of the first attack.

Franck and Patricia prostituted Marine, her younger sister and their little brother. Another half-dozen children were abused in their home, on about 100 different occasions.

Philippe was sentenced to 28 years in prison.

"These were families with serious paedophile behaviour," prosecution spokesman Herve Lollic said.

Another of the alleged key players in the ring, identified as Eric, was described as an "ogre" and known to the children as "the fatty". He was found guilty of raping or abusing more than 10 children.

Eric's brother Jean-Marc was also found guilty of abuse.

Late intervention

As each of the defendants testified, a picture emerged of a cluster of three families in which adults abused each other's children, often in the same room.

Courtroom in Angers
A special courtroom was built to accommodate the trial

"As one expert at the trial said, these were people who were unable to manage their sexual impulses. And nobody told them these things shouldn't be done, " Ms Chirat told the BBC News website.

One question which remains unanswered is why it took so long for the authorities to become aware of the abuse.

A defence lawyer pointed out that 21 of the 23 families involved in the case had been monitored by French social workers. The first report of abuse was in 1999, but the investigation only began in earnest in 2002.

A spokesman for the president of the Maine et Loire regional council said social services were not to blame.

"We are not auxiliaries for the police," he said, pointing out that no charges had been laid against any social workers. "But obviously, in a case like this, we will reflect on how we can improve our work."

Demand for rethink

Ms Chirat said the child protection system failed and should be reviewed. For example, social workers used to always call ahead before making visits, she said.

The police should also review how it deals with ex-offenders once they are released, she added.

Three of those on trial had a previous conviction for child abuse, and were supposed to be under some kind of supervision.

Herve Lollic said he believed France now took the tragedy of paedophilia seriously, but that efforts still needed to be made to tackle the problem.

"Little by little police and magistrates have recognised the issue and looked at it differently. But I fear that these things do not just happen in Angers," he said.

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